Written and directed by Carter
Somehow, the most inexplicable thing about Maladies is that it’s being released around the United States for release; considering the film’s deliberately experimental and impenetrable quality, this is no easy feat to achieve. But the overriding question upon watching Maladies is as follows: who is this movie for? Its star, James Franco, has become as well-known for his avant-garde work in cinema and modern art as well as he’s known for being a James Dean lookalike in the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks or for his work in Apatow-era mainstream comedies like Pineapple Express. So Maladies may be something he just wanted to do for kicks, but it’s hard to imagine this film raising any level of interest from all but the most dedicated of completists.
In Maladies, Franco stars as James, an actor of some renown and success who quits (or is fired, perhaps; he always denies this too strenuously) from a lucrative TV job and moves back to a small town to live with his oddball sister (Fallon Goodson) and close friend Catherine (Catherine Keener). Ah, but Franco isn’t actually playing himself, at least not as literally as we may know him. The few times we see his TV work—presumably on a soap opera of some kind, possibly alluding to his choice to appear on General Hospital for a time, something he appears to have also done just for the sheer hell of it—it’s clear that this is meant to be a period piece of some kind. When James walks through the small town where he’s now residing, other people dress as if they’re straight out of the 1950s or early 1960s. Though James purportedly has moved away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood to be writer, he’s battling some demons of his own, such as being able to communicate with the ostensible narrator of Maladies. (Oh yes, there is a narrator, because of course there is.)
James Franco is no stranger to experimental cinema, having directed a couple such pieces of his own. Here, the writer and director is the artist Carter, who, as luck would have it, inspired Franco’s appearances on General Hospital and previously directed a film in which Franco reenacted his own work as well as that of Julianne Moore and Rock Hudson. (Again, the impetus must have been “Why the hell not?”) Maladies has a number of other noteworthy performers, from Keener to David Strathairn to Alan Cumming. (Cumming and Mary Beth Peil, who has a cameo here, are both cast members on CBS’ excellent show The Good Wife. It is a bad sign when two such talented performers, who should be bright spots in any film, cannot salvage one second of this dross.) Maybe they admire Carter’s work, maybe they found the paper-thin concept interesting, or maybe they just owed Franco money or a favor.
Whatever the case, they’re all in mostly baffling, perplexing parts here; Keener’s character, named Catherine but not (it seems) meant to be her actual self, chooses to dress herself in a more masculine fashion; in a couple of scenes, she changes her hairstyle and draws on a mustache to feel more like a man, before switching back later on. Strathairn is given a more flamboyant and fey part as a family friend, but looks fairly stranded relative to Franco’s aimless belligerence. Cumming and Peil both have only one scene, neither of which amount to anything special; these scenes, and many others, feel like mini-student films. For a presumed art film, there’s little panache or style here; the most notable flourish is verbal, not visual, with Franco and the narrator interacting.
Really, Maladies isn’t particularly special on the whole. One presumes it’s meant to be something of a vanity project for James Franco, but to what point and purpose? If one of the main goals of the film is to engender the kind of confused reaction evidenced by this very review, he and Carter can at least feel comforted in knowing they’ve achieved their purpose. But why should be that be the purpose of any film, simply to perplex its audience? Perhaps Maladies is the kind of film that’s meant to inspire heated debate and conversation; if so, it’s maybe not the best start to any such debate or conversation that all people involved would agree that this film is almost entirely a waste of time and resources.
— Josh Spiegel